Psychology of Embodiment in Hinduism

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In January 2019, I became certified to practice Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP), a body-oriented psychotherapy modality, in which we work with emotions that get embedded in the muscular system and the organs at the physical level, and also those in the subtle body. One of the core concepts of the ISP is the embodiment of emotions. Put simply, the embodiment of emotions is experiencing the emotion as much as possible in the body, within the context relevant to it, thereby processing it to the maximum possible extent by the client. Done well, with adequate safeguards, this results in clearer thinking, resolution of feelings, and context-appropriate behavior. The theoretical base of ISP draws from cutting-edge western research of embodied cognition, from the Hindu philosophy of Advāita Vedānta, and energy psychology principles.

Embodiment-based therapy approaches are being used to treat anxiety, depression, sexual trauma, posttraumatic stress, and stress-related disorders. These are in vogue now, and it seems to me that the field is slowly moving away from cognitive modalities like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to more body and energy-based modalities

Embodiment & Hinduism

Soon after, I began exploring what the religion that I was born into had to offer. And not surprisingly, here is what I understood: embodiment is INHERENT in Hinduism. We really don’t need to look elsewhere, especially those of us therapists who are born into Hindu religion/sanātan dharma. A number of practices in the Hindu tradition – both in my observation as a counseling psychologist, and from personal experience – are geared towards embodying the specific intended emotion or attitude. For brevity, I shall cover a couple of examples here. For ease of reading, I will not dwell too deep into the psycho-biology involved.

The most common example of embodiment I observe is Yoga Āsanas, especially when taught to children. Children are often taught āsanas in a playful manner, with names of animals – simhāsana (lion pose), kapotāsana (pigeon pose), bhujangāsana (cobra pose), kākāsana (crow pose), gomukhāsana (cow face pose), adhomukhśvānāsana (downward dog pose), uṣtrāsana (camel pose)… I can go on. On the one hand, it is super fun, and on the other, it teaches children to build empathy while embodying that particular animal’s way of being. Each Āsana is intended to embody the essence of the respective being that is referred to in the name. Regular Yoga Āsana practice has myriad benefits, and in addition to the intended effect of physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing, there is also a heightened sensitivity towards other fellow creatures. This should work with adults also, but is perhaps applicable only if the Yoga Āsanas are taken with the intent of self-surrender and are not a substitute to the gym/ego aggrandizement.

Next, take the concept and ritual of pitṛ śrāddha. Once a year, in the pitṛ pakśa (fortnight of ancestors), traditional Hindus offer gratitude to their ancestors. Usually, our memory doesn’t go beyond three generations. By consciously remembering our ancestors – which includes our immediate parents (Vasu), grandparents (rudṛa), and great-grandparents (āditya) – and engaging in appropriate rituals, we are actually embodying the emotions of gratitude, remembrance, connectedness, and even grief and mourning. Pitṛ Loka (the world of ancestors) can also be said to be the world of our memory, whether conscious or unconscious. One of my teachers says that the psychological intent is in the śāstras itself, not in our interpretation of them. Imagine the therapeutic value of these rituals which allow you to grieve, connect with, and fondly remember those not in this world anymore, who contributed to making you who you are!

Lastly, I’d like to take the most obvious example of embodiment in Hinduism – its temples! The Formless God is ‘embodied’ in the consecrated mūrti of the temple. The structure of temples (at least traditional ones that are made as per plan and not modern whims and conveniences) – as you walk in from the entrance – is designed in a way that embodies the physical structure of a human being. The entrance structure embodies the feet, the flagstaff embodies the genital organs, the assembly hall embodies the belly, the porch embodies the heart, the sanctum embodies the head and the mūrti (icon/idol) embodies the brow-meet. It is in the actual physical temple that the formless infinite can become accessible to the finite human being: the embodiment of grace, compassion, and peace.

The beginning

As I mentioned earlier, I’m barely scratching the surface. Other directions of exploration include devotion, prayer, and dance. The embodiment of devotion happens when one practices Bhakti Yoga. Surrendering and acceptance of results are embodied when one practices Karma Yoga. A range of emotions is also embodied when one learns a traditional dance form e.g., Bharatanatyam! I am convinced that if we dig deep enough and learn to read and practice with an open mind, we will realize that embodiment – and its psychological benefits – are second nature to Hinduism.

This brings me to the common element that is noticed in embodiment – practice. Intentional practice by using the body – is a must for embodiment (basically you can’t learn to drive by reading a book, or swim by watching YouTube videos)! Which is exactly how various rituals and practices in Hinduism are designed – integrating the concept and the practice. I daresay that Hinduism is a life science that leads to the ultimate goal while addressing almost any question that one may have on the way

Indian psychologists are practicing a discipline that is about one hundred and twenty years old while having a vast treasure of indigenous knowledge which is thousands of years old within their reach. Instead of dismissing it as superstition or tradition that’s blindly followed, I urge and encourage fellow psychologists to explore this knowledge further, and see the therapeutic value in it for themselves.

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P.S. Special thanks to Ashish Pant and Abhinav Kadambi for reviewing and suggesting edits to the draft.

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About Sanjana Meher 1 Article
Sanjana Meher is a counseling psychologist based in Hyderabad, Telangana. Her interest lies in combining Eastern and Western modalities of psychotherapy in her sessions. Apart from this, she enjoys painting and reading. She can be reached at www.sanjanameher.in